Helping the next generation to own their faith

I’m 22. And I have a growing fear that my generation, and the generation after me, is living on borrowed faith.

I grew up in a Christian household. My parents have always gone to church, and are active members of the church, serving in various capacities. However, being first generation Christians, they have no experience of what it is like to grow up in a Christian household and the unique struggles we face with the Christian faith.

This is not a slight on their parenting. On the contrary, they gave me their best, providing for my needs, meting out discipline when it was necessary, encouraging and opening up opportunities for me to grow and develop as a person, being patient and supportive when I failed, teaching me how to relate to others well, impressing on me the importance of being faithful in fulfilling our responsibilities, and loving the church intensely. I wouldn’t trade them for any other parents in the world, and am grateful that God has blessed me in such a unique way.

Yet there are always blind spots in any parenting. One of the unique dangers second-generation Christians tend to face is the possibility of living on borrowed faith for years without suffering the consequences. Growing up, I was unaware that I was living on borrowed faith. I went to church because my parents went to church. I participated in church programs because that was what they would expect of me. I always defined my Christian identity in terms of being a child of Christian parents. It was the culture and religion I had grown up in, and I saw no reason to abandon it.

But having no reason to abandon your Christian roots does not translate into having reasons for embracing the Christian faith as your own and doing so. There is a wide divide between the two that must be purposefully bridged, and this is a divide that many Christian parents unknowingly and unintentionally ignore to the peril of their children.

There is genuine peril because true Christians cannot live off borrowed faith. Spiritual capital cannot be transferred between individuals. As children, it is easy to imagine this possible while we remain under the shelter and protection of our parents. But the real world inevitably breaks in our lives. If we do not own our faith when this happens, we will desert the faith of our parents. That leads us down the path to an unthinkable destiny.

The reason that our desertion is certain is because there is only one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ himself. God has not instituted a second mediator, be it our family or friends, between Jesus and man. There is no need. If we do not embrace Jesus for ourselves and not for our parents’ sake, we do not embrace God. We will either see Jesus as our own treasure, or continue searching for riches that do not exist in this world. We will either acknowledge Jesus as our own Lord, or make counterfeit gods of other vain things like money and fame and spouses. God does not question us at the end of the day what our parents did with Jesus; he will ask what we personally did with Jesus.

Borrowed faith is no faith at all. God gives faith to individuals to enable them to come to him and enjoy a familial relationship with him. If our faith is not our own, it means that we have not been given faith to believe on Jesus and all that he has done for us. It means that we are still dead in our trespasses and sins.

As God does not give faith by lottery, but does so through the hearing of his Word, Christians bear a responsibility to the next generation. God has appointed us to the task of entrusting the truths of the Bible to a generation yet to hear of his works. Through the reading, teaching and preaching of the Bible, God reveals himself to the hearts and minds of those who have ears to listen.

Our church programs and ministries exist for the sake of entrusting the truths of the Bible to the next generation. In particular, we need to tell the next generation of Jesus and his work and why it matters. But these truths are shifting from the center of the Christian faith to the periphery. The connections between the cross and Christian ministry and between the gospel and the transformed life are not being drawn clearly and explicitly. We are engaging the next generation to build structures but not teaching them to first lay the foundations.

This is an unsurprising oversight. Foundations are crucial but hidden. And what is hidden is often forgotten. But when the older generation moves on and the work falls to the newer generation, they will only know how to erect buildings without foundations. They will be like the foolish man who built his house on the sand, rather than the wise man who dug down deep and built his house on the rock. Their work will be destroyed and their faith will be shipwrecked, if it was ever theirs to begin with.

I once read some wise words from D.A. Carson, and though it lengthens this post considerably, I include them here because we need to hear a clear warning from an experienced and seasoned Christian scholar and pastor:

If I have learned anything in 35 or 40 years of teaching, it is that students don’t learn everything I teach them. What they learn is what I am excited about, the kinds of things I emphasize again and again and again and again. That had better be the gospel.

If the gospel—even when you are orthodox—becomes something which you primarily assume, but what you are excited about is what you are doing in some sort of social reconstruction, you will be teaching the people that you influence that the gospel really isn’t all that important. You won’t be saying that—you won’t even mean that—but that’s what you will be teaching. And then you are only half a generation away from losing the gospel.

Make sure that in your own practice and excitement, what you talk about, what you think about, what you pray over, what you exude confidence over, joy over, what you are enthusiastic about is Jesus, the gospel, the cross. And out of that framework, by all means, let the transformed life flow.

If we do not let the gospel become the root and framework and emphasis of all that we do, we are half a generation from losing it altogether. Where the gospel is lost, faith will not be given. Where faith is not given, Jesus is not trusted and embraced and treasured for all he is. Though we did not intend or set out to do so, we have unavoidably crippled, and possibly condemned, an entire generation.

My generation and the one after me will be present in our churches for a season. They will participate in the programs, join the youth group and even serve in some of the church ministries. But if we do not use this season to help them own their faith, we neglect the one thing they need most: the gospel spoken and explained and lived out with conviction, consistency, and competency.

They need someone to sit down with them to explain what Christians believe, who Jesus is, and why he matters most.

They need someone who will challenge them to answer the call of Jesus and spend their lives for the sake of his name.

They need someone who will help them understand how the truths of the gospel transform our lives, and model such living.

They need someone to plant their feet on the solid ground of the gospel, so that they are able to stand, and stand firm, when the struggles of life press in on them.

They need someone to help them learn to navigate through this world with gospel wisdom, so that they can make wise and holy choices that bring glory to God.

They need someone who will unceasingly pray for them, that God would be pleased to give them an undivided heart that desires the name and fame of Jesus above everything else.

And having ownership of their faith, they need someone who will call them to go and do likewise for the next generation.

Will we be that someone?

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